I don’t seem to have a biological clock. I just don’t. No particular pull towards children or producing them; no visceral urge to reproduce; no sense of impending loss. I’m finding this paragraph difficult to write, already, because while many women I’ve discussed this with and several friends I love and respect have spoken to me seriously about their experience of broodiness and their desire for children – and I take these conversations very seriously – I actually can’t imagine what having such a thing must be like.
It’s not that I dislike children. My boyfriend has a lovely daughter, and I am happy (and indeed looking forward) to being some kind of truth-telling unconventional crazy aunty-friend type person as far as she’s concerned (although I would imagine is she lived with him full time, this might be more of an issue than it in fact is.) The same goes for any child I may know as they grow up. My friends’ babies are often cute and interesting – little unformed people! How curious! – and I’m happy to spend time with them and make a fuss of them as long as I get to give them back again. When my boyfriend’s daughter (probably to be referred to henceforth as the anti-stepdaughter) turned to me with huge eyes and said ‘are you going to be my new stepmother?’ my response was one of barely concealed horror, and the explanation that I’d like to be her friend and her dad’s girlfriend but I really wasn’t the maternal type. (She took this in her stride, bless her.) Individual kids are interesting because of their parents or their potential or their perspective, and whilst I certainly wdn’t want to spend all my time with one, I’m happy for them to be around. (Exceptions to this include any child displaying cruelty or malice, but that’s hardly exclusive to children. People are generally horrible, I can’t single out kids here.)
I googled ‘biological clock’ and many of the articles I found simply assume a ‘ticking biological clock’ is a given. One actually goes so far as to describe babies as ‘sweet, lovable lady kryptonite’, but then it also makes a bunch of REALLY PROBLEMATIC gender assumptions and suggests looking at cute animal pictures on the internet constitutes a subsumed desire to reproduce, and I have several case studies (including myself) to disprove such an assertion. There’s a probably unsurprising critical mass of stuff claiming women’s ‘ticking biological clocks’ make them ‘crazy’. (This paragraph is difficult too, for rather different reasons: try googling ‘daily mail’ and ‘biological clock’ and you’ll see what I mean. But I won’t fucking link to them.) There’s a constant undertone – sometimes even in articles decrying the ‘pressure’ placed on women – that the desire for children is a) unarguable b) universal but c) ONLY WOMEN’S BUSINESS. There’s a side order of we all ought to be having children in our early twenties JUST IN CASE WE ACCIDENTALLY SLIPPED and had a career, a good time, a lot of excellent safe sex, or an exciting decade of international travel and counter-espionage instead of fulfilling our BIOLOGICAL DESTINY. Which, as a woman and a feminist but mostly as a HUMAN BEING pisses me the fuck off.
But maybe this is me? Maybe in my bemusement I am missing something. Certainly many excellent women of my acquaintance perceive themselves as subject to some sort of cumulative psychosociocultural or biological pressure. (I suspect it helps that my beloved and mostly sane parents are quite definitively and notably without any desire or expectation of grandchildren, either from me or from my happily-married brother.) There are evidently two factors here: one, the changes in fertility as women age (and quite possibly men and others too, but I couldn’t find a useful/reliable article on this. Although there are lots out there and again Google is your friend. I would imagine genderqueer folk or those of other genders generally have to fit themselves into the ridiculous broad brushstrokes of mainstream cultural discourses on this somewhat uncomfortably anyway – if anyone could point me in the direction of some articles, that would be amazing. ) And two, an intense perceived psychological and social pressure to achieve a life structure into which you can bring children before it’s ‘too late.’ (‘Too late’ to bear one’s own biological children, one assumes – it looks like there’s no upper age limit on adoption, in the UK at least, and some support for ‘older’ parents of foster children, whose average age is 50+. But I imagine if you perceive a biological pressure, you’re probably pretty invested* in being genetically related to your kids.) And I find SPECTACULARLY difficult to detach the concept of a particular biological experience attendant on femininity – which, to reinterate, at the grand old age of 33 I have yet to perceive the faintest whisper of – independent of the contemporary cultural constructions surrounding femininity, gender, maternity, parenthood, and all the rest of that colourful mess, and yet that is implicitly what so much discourse around this is asking me to do. To assume that I have a biological deadline which somehow causes all the psychological stuff.
It might be relevant at this point to tell you that my family, whilst in some ways as monumentally fucked up as Philip Larkin could possibly wish, were unconventionally functional in some ways. My dad never discussed anything even vaguely related to my future spawning or otherwise, to my recollection at least, and my little mother** never made me feel I ought to have children; to be honest, insofar as I can remember she urged me not to, because I could get more done that way. There was probably an ‘unless you want them of course’ tacked on as an afterthought, but I can’t remember it. [There is some psychological mother-daughter mess here that I won’t go into, but if you read Luce Irigaray’s ‘And The One Doesn’t Stir Without The Other’ it’ll give you the general emotional gist.] Certainly I left childhood with no sense that motherhood was my destiny, and I remember shocking my then-lover aged 17 with the assertion that I didn’t want children. (‘But…why not?’ ‘Why would I?’ was my unanswerable and, at the time, apparently highly disturbing response.) There’s an interesting parallel here with alcohol – my family never really drank when I was growing up, it was never part of my family culture, and although I drank a bit with friends as a teenager, I sort of never really saw the point. (When I needed an emotional crutch or a means of self-destruction, in a metabolically-slender and unashamedly foody family I picked self-starvation. Go figure.) As an adult I occasionally have half a drink and fall over. Close friends sometimes find it hilarious to offer me tasty alcohol and observe this process. I am generally fine with this – I rarely finish a drink and never get hangovers.
So yeah, it’s hard for me not to see – accurately or otherwise – a parallel between growing up in an environment where parenthood was neither particularly expected nor welcomed and one where alcohol wasn’t really a thing. My contemporaries seem drawn to both, and I’ve never really understood either. (Well, I’m a bit clearer post-several-breakdowns on the anaesthetic possibilities of alcohol, but it was never my drug of choice, despite occasional attempts.) And it’s hard, from this apparently-detached, unusual perspective, not to see the bullshit peddled above about women and their ticking, crazymaking biological clocks as the misogynist imposition of a patriarchal culture – the not-even-very-sophisticated descendent of the age-old concept of the female body as dangerous, impulsive, shifting, unstable, women as possessing inferior wit and judgement and the root of their problematic and permeable inferiority lying in their reproductive organs. People in the early modern period used to believe that the womb left its space above a woman’s vagina and wondered around the body suffocating things and causing all manner of symptoms, including emotional and psychological ones – it could be treated by lighting feathers under the sufferer’s nose, which the errant uterus would dislike and return to its normal harbour. This was referred to as ‘the mother’. I’m not making this up, although I can’t work out a way of linking to the relevant chapter of my PhD here. We may have better understanding of anatomy these days, but are we really significantly less inclined to impose sociocultural constructions on the body? How is that even possible? Are we any more able to remove ourselves from our cultural context in order to see fully all the ways in which we might be influenced? I doubt it. After all, to quote the excellent Helen Malson, ‘The body is not, for all its corpo-reality, a natural, transhistorical object. It is always-already constituted in and regulated by socio-historically specific discourses.*** Which in somewhat less theoretical language means that our experience of the body is shaped by our understanding of it, and our understanding of it is culturally constructed.
This is absolutely not to deride the very real experience of women who experience the ticking of a biological clock. Their experience is every bit as legitimate as my own. We are culturally constructed creatures, neurologically as much as anything else, and it’s entirely plausible (to my moderate knowledge) that an identity formed in hope or expectation or assumption of a particular biological future becomes physiologically and neurologically present in some sense. Bodies are amazing. I am as much a product of my problematic culture as anyone, lord knows I’ve done some stupid enough things as a complex physiologically-responsive result of internalised cultural conditioning, cf my decade-long experience of eating disorders. So yes, not a judgement.
A question, though. I am very interested in people’s thoughts here. Does this make sense to you? If you have a ‘biological clock’, how does it feel? How does it relate to your personal history/cultural background? Is this all bollocks compared to the vividly experienced reality of living in your body? I am interested. And, er, feel free to comment anonymously.
*That autocorrected to ‘incested’. Comment superfluous.
**pet name. My family are all ‘little’. I call the anti-stepdaughter ‘little one’. Families, eh. They get under your skin.
***Malson, Thin Woman, 49